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Russian Jewry: The Effect of Immigration on Israeli Music
Aaron Miller

1. Background

  • Believed Jews could have arrived in modern day Azerbaijan, Armenia
  • Driven out of Western Europe and persecuted in Germany, accepted and Dagestan, Russia around 8th century BCE from Babylon/Iran
  • Driven out of Western Europe and persecuted in Germany, accepted invitation to settle in Poland
  • Lived in shtetls (small Jewish communities) under halakhah rule
  • Muscovite Russia expanded into Eastern Europe, took over Polish Lithuanian lands in 1790s

2. Pale of Settlement

  • Catherine II: fearful of dissolution of Russian nationality, autocracy, and orthodoxy; separates Catholic, Jewish populations
  • Jews begin adopting language, customs
  • BUT life in the shtlets was not good, blamed for rebellions like Decembrist Uprising, etc., double taxation

3. Musical Influences in the Pale

  • Gusli: oldest Russian plucked string instrument
  • Klezmer: Ashkenazi musical tradition meant to complement liturgical and paraliturgical singing with expressive melodies reminiscent of the human voice
  • SHOW VIDEO CLIP #1
  • SHOW VIDEO CLIP #2

4. The First Aliyah

  • Majority of Jews in the world at the end of the 19th century lived in Russian Empire
  • May Laws passed and Jews were xompletely expelled from Kiev and Moscow
  • Hibbat Zion: pre-Zionist movement advocating revival of Jewish life and physical development of the land of Israel
  • Bilu: movement whose goal was the agricultural settlement (eventually joining Hibbat in founding Rishon LeZion)
  • Early conditions were harsh: marshy land, Turk tax, Arab opposition

5. Music in a Foreign Land

  • First major influence on music in Israel outside of locale
  • Although this performance by singer and actress Tova Piron is from 1947 it is exemplary of the trend of Hebrew lyrics on top of foreign (specifically Russian lyrics)
  • SHOW VIDEO CLIP #3

6. Second and Third Aliyahs

  • Arrived in the wake of more pogroms before the war, halted during the war, and then arrived again after the British mandate and Balfour Declaration promising a national home for Jewish people
  • Collective, agricultural communities that combined a mix of Zionistic and socialist beliefs

7. Purposeful Music

  • Haggadah texts (which are used to to set forth the order of the Passover Seder) set to Russian folk styles by Russian born composers like Postolsky’s “We were Pharaoh’s bondsmen in Egypt”
  • PLAY ITUNES SONG #1

8. Society of Jewish Folk Music

  • Much of its importance lies in the fact that pretty much every organization for the promotion of Jewish music followed its methods: it sought to collect folk songs and harmonize them to aid Jewish composers and promote the R&D of religious and secular Jewish folk music
  • Most of them being students at the conservatory there
  • SHOW VIDEO CLIP #4
  • Joel Engel played a key role in its success as he had already formed an important circle of Jewish musicians
  • Founded similar societies elsewhere (Juwal-Verlag in Berlin)

9. Post-Soviet Aliyah

  • During the soviet regime, mass emigration was politically undesirable so the only acceptable reason was for family reunification (generally for elders)
  • One’s family had to quit their jobs just to apply
  • More than a million to Israel b/c US stopped granting unconditional refugee status to Soviet Jews in 1989
  • No attempt to assimilate the Eastern Ashkenazi folk music of the Russian Jews who survived the Cold War

10. Unassimilated High Culture

  • Danced at Russian discotheques, went out with Russians (could’ve been due to large size w/ neighborhoods of tens of thousands)
  • Yet, interestingly enough, according to a study done by Marina Niznik of Tel Aviv University…

11. Russian-Influenced Symphonic Orchestras

  • However many have not adopted a new Jewish (Hebrewist) or Middle Eastern style like the Germans Jewish immigrants did to represent their new national identity
  • Earlier this year, in June, the Israel Philharomnic Orchestra performed a concert comprised of an all-Russian program

I always enjoy reading the proposals submitted by the students of Music in Israel for their class projects (papers, presentations and performances, as outlined in the Class Syllabus). Then, I begin thinking, and learning, from them. I divide them into groups, and created graphs to describe their formats and contents.

It should suggest where things are at, now that we have reached the middle of the Semester.

Format-wise, students were somewhat “conservative.” Most students opted for the traditional “paper” (or essay) format. Some went for collaborative class presentations. And a few (but still a considerable number) chose to produce and present a performance to the class.

Music in Israel | Fall 2013 | Student Project Formats

In terms of the topic that students chose to work on, regardless of the format of their projects, I was able to isolate four major groups: ethnographic and ethnomusicological themes, the study of art music, the study of popular music, and the relationship between music and history.

Music in Israel | Fall 2013 | Student Project Topics

Ethnographic projects cover a wide variety of topics, ranging from the emergence of Judeo-Spanish song and Klezmer music between ethnography and commercial revival, to the sacred/secular divide in Israeli (musical) culture, issues of gender, various types of fieldwork (including the “ethnography of the Self”…), the study of traditional musical instruments, of the relationship between music and food, the role of Arabic maqam in Jewish music, music education, music in the Kibbutz, and the role of music in various Jewish “ethnic communities,” from Russia and Romania to Central Asia.

Students working on popular music will be covering a variety of themes, including Jazz, world Jewish and Israeli “pop,” ethnic rock, punk rock, Hip hop, and religious rock, the impact of American music on Israel’s popular music, the work of specific artists or ensembles (including Naomi Shemer, Shlomo Carlebach, and the Idan Reichel Project), and the impact of conflict and the role of the Israeli Defence Forces in shaping popular musical culture.

Art music is well represented as well, with topics ranging from the Israeli piano and vocal repertoires, to the impact of America’s Jewish composers on Israeli music, to the important issue of “style” (Mediterraneims, Orientalism, etc.) in Israel’s musical aesthetics.

The relationship between music and history will be mainly investigated in two directions: the role of film (and especially film music) in narrating history and representing culture, and the musical representations of the Holocaust.

Perhaps we are half way done, but it looks like a busy end of semester is coming up!

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